A Day With the Porsche 912 - Can it Convert Me into a Porsche Fan?
After years of not being a Porsche guy, I decided I should take a look back at the roots of the 911 to see what I could learn about the brand.
I am not, and have never been, a Porsche guy. From the time I was old enough to know what a car was, the Italians and big American barges have had my heart. Over the years though, I’ve managed to find myself behind the wheel of a few GT3s, a 964 Turbo, the Taycan Turbo S, and a few others as well as in the passenger seat of a 918 Spyder with a madman behind wheel. While I’ve only ever been truly disappointed by the original V6 Panamera, I never found myself pining for any of the Porsches I’ve driven after giving them back. With that in mind, I thought it was about time I tried to figure out what it is that makes people fall so madly in love with them so I hopped on DriveShare and found myself a 1969 912 to see if going back to the beginnings of the 911 might give me a little insight.
For those not familiar with Porsche history, the 911 and 912 were replacements for the iconic “bathtub” 356 of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Originally these cars were to be called the 901 and 902 but Peugeot felt that having three numbers with a zero as the second digit was their signature and would be confusing to people. Thus, the models were renamed 911 and 912. The 912 featured a 1.6L four-cylinder engine and a much smaller price tag than the 911, the logic being that the price spike from the outgoing 356 to the flat six powered 911 would be problematic to potential buyers and would cost sales.
After picking up the 912 from its owner, I rather quickly threw the two things at it that I feared it would perform worst at – open highway and steep inclines. Between the owner’s home and my own, there is a small highway through the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles that crosses over two very large suspension bridges. Given that the 912’s engine only produced 100 horsepower when new, I was less than excited at that prospect. However, with a bit of carried momentum and enough revs the little Porsche cleared those obstacles without much trouble. After a quick photo shoot down at the port, the 912 was given a night’s respite before the events of the coming morning.
In order to give the 912 a proper test, I thought I should do what most owners would do on a Sunday morning – call up a couple classic car enthusiasts and go for a bit of a drive. So, at the bright and early hour of 10:37 am, our little convoy set off our drive. We started with a nice cruise up the coast before looping back inland and finishing up with a little jaunt through my favorite set of twisty roads. During that drive, the 912 began showing me its inner charms. It may not have been the quickest or the most comfortable of our trio, but I know my smile was just as wide as the others’.
The 912 has gone back to its owner now, leaving me to ruminate on the day I spent with it. Typically in my reviews I start with my thoughts on the exterior then the interior of the car so I think that’s a good place to start. The 912 shares its body with the 911, which is one of the most iconic and recognizable cars ever built. Personally, I think these early cars and the whale tail cars of the 1980s are the best looking of the bunch and the addition of the 911 chrome trim pieces on this particular 912 made it look all the better. On the inside, there’s about as little as one would expect from a car that weighs less than 2200 lbs. However, the seats are quite comfortable and despite being a larger chap I didn’t find myself wanting for room. The token rear seats are a nice touch for those with younger children, but putting anyone over the age of 12 in them would just be mean – the space is much better used with the seats down acting as a parcel shelf for items you don’t want to shove in the front trunk.
Of course, with any Porsche the real question is in the driving experience – does it drive like a Porsche should? Even though it is laughably down on power, I’d have to say that it does. The steering is taught and responsive and the handling isn’t limited by the suspension and platform, but by the large sidewalls on the tires. The feel from the brake pedal is incredibly stiff since there is no power assistance, but even when I was driving it as a Porsche should be driven, I never felt worried I wouldn’t stop in time. The only detraction for me was the gearbox. The box is extremely narrow, making it extremely easy to mis-shift and grab the wrong gear, which can be really problematic when you’re accelerating in a 100 hp car and end up skipping two gears and lugging the hell out of the motor. I did almost 100 miles in the 912 and I was still having trouble with it, which is the longest learning curve I’ve ever had in a car – including when I was learning to operate a manual transmission (something I did at a Hagerty event that included Wayne Carini helping teach me in his 1948 Davis Divan). The owner tells me that it is just a really long learning curve, though, and I suspect he’s correct about that. I will also mention that having a clutch that hinges from below was also a bit strange after so many years of being used to top hinged clutch pedals, but that didn’t take long to get used to.
Overall, I found the 912 to be an utterly charming car that for the first time with a Porsche I was sad to give back. While I can’t say it has converted me into a Porsche-phile, I think it has finally shed some light onto why it is that I can’t seem to fall in love with Porsches like others can. Simply put, it’s that their cars are too perfect – too polished. The first time I drove a GT3 I was on an autocross that I also took a Ferrari F430 Spider and a Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 around and for some reason even though I was significantly faster in the Porsche, I enjoyed the Italians far more. Now I understand why – they were compromised. If I was fast in the Ferrari or the Lamborghini it was because I as the driver was fast, it was because I managed to wrestle them around and make them perform. With the GT3, as well as any other modern Porsche, the engineers in Germany have done such amazing work that even the biggest oaf on the planet could make the car go quickly.
The owner described the 912 as “honest” when I gave it back to him, and I don’t think there’s a better way to describe it. Yes, it has a bunch of quirks. Yes, it’s flawed. Yes, it’s much harder to drive than a modern Porsche. But when you sum all those things up, you end up with an equation for a huge amount of satisfaction when you finally manage to start getting it all right and driving the 912 as it was built to be driven.